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Cape Town – The school placement scramble is in full gear for thousands of parents whose children have been unsuccessful at being enrolled.

The 2020 academic year begins on Wednesday, and with pupil enrolment in the Western Cape growing at an average of 18 000 children per year, the Education Department said schools were already full and had long waiting lists.

The issue affects mostly poorer children and their parents, as lower-income areas have experienced rapid growth, with schools not keeping pace.

Wynberg mother Lulu Mbelesi is at her wits' end as she has two children who have not been accommodated at schools. She applied to 10 different schools for her children, without success.

The stress of not getting placed was taking a toll on her 15-year-old son’s mental health as well, she said.

Mbelesi’s 6-year-old daughter is supposed to start Grade R, but now it seems she may have to spend a significant part of the year at home as she has not been able to get placed in a school.

Mbelesi said that for the past three years her son had had to travel to get to a private college in Ndabeni as the schools she had applied to on his behalf had rejected her. 

She is having to pay R23 000 a year for the college, money which she does not have.

Mbelesi said she had applied in time for her children.

“For my daughter I applied at Wynberg Girls, Oakhurst Girls, Plumstead Prep, Timour Hall Primary, Groote Schuur Primary and Golden Grove Primary; they said they were overcrowded. I appealed, and only Bergvliet Primary promised to put my child on the waiting list.

“This time of year children and parents are happy, buying uniforms. I am stressed, I don’t sleep because I am deep in debt because I didn’t plan to send my child to a private school,” Mbelesi wrote to the Western Cape Eduction Department (WCED) in a desperate attempt for it to intervene.

WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said the department had been in touch with Mbelesi and had been engaging districts to help find places.

“We are currently trying to help the parent find an alternative option, but schools are still closed at this point. Schools are oversubscribed and receive far more applications than they can accommodate.

“The issue of rejection by the school of choice and the psychological impact on the pupil not attending a school of their choice is a concern.

"The WCED, as far as possible, tries to direct parents to options they would be comfortable with, but there are limitations as to what can be done by the department when alternative options provided is not accepted by the parent,” Hammond said.

Placement woes have been a recurring issue in the province for several years.

At the start of last year an urgent request for extra staff was made for Bergville Primary School in Bishop Lavis, where 72 pupils were crammed into a class. 

A couple of years ago about 800 primary school pupils from grades R to 7 in Mfuleni sat cramped in a tent that was used as a makeshift school until they were placed in schools.

Mitchells Plain Education Forum member Colleen Horswell said the lack of schools and overcrowded classrooms was a problem that mostly affected low-income areas. 

SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) provincial chairperson Jonovan Rustin echoed Horswell’s sentiment, saying they had found on many occasions that former Model C schools rejected pupils even if they had space to accommodate them, while schools in townships and on the Cape Flats were forced to accept pupils, leading to issues of overcrowding. 

“We had a meeting where we raised this issue with the WCED. We keep asking them what their plans on this issue are, but we never get concrete answers,” Rustin said. 

Last year Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said that while the department would build up to six new schools a year and expand others, it was not enough to meet the rapidly growing pupil population. 

Gauteng also experiences rapid growth yearly. Schäfer said the WCED’s online system differed to that of Gauteng. 

“The Gauteng system places pupils at a specific school once the parent has applied. In the Western Cape, parents can apply to a variety of schools and the system acts as a tool to process applications so that governing bodies can select applications according to their own admission policies. 

"This process is closed. Our system was also only piloted this year,” Schäfer said. 

Hammond said district offices were helping parents find alternative options, but this took time. 

“Parents must stay in touch with our district office. Patience will greatly assist,” Hammond said.

Cape Times